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Review: 'Herzog & de Meuron' at the Royal Academy Is All Style, No Substance


Herzog & de Meuron , Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, 2001-16, Model, © Herzog & de Meuron.

The Royal Academy of Arts has opened a new architectural exhibition focusing on the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron (H&dM), the acclaimed firm which has designed a myriad of intriguing constructions around the world: Tate Modern’s power station-turned-art gallery, Beijing's giant Bird’s Nest, and the National Library of Israel, to name but a few. H&dM’s hefty reputation triggers a certain degree of expectation for anyone who recognises the names of their works. However, this exhibition will only appeal to the staunch architect-enthusiast or H&dM admirers as the displays fixate on H&dM’s work process without a curatorial narrative that would add more context to their work and the exhibition itself.

The exhibition begins with a room featuring three long timber and glass shelves full of prototypes, models, prints, sketches, pictures, and short videos from H&dM’s Kabinett in Basel. Through the glass of these “cabinets of curiosity”, one could see the early mock-ups of the Tate Modern London; the Main Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing; 1111 Lincoln Road, Florida, and many more H&dM’s major projects. The accompanying AR visuals are meant to further enhance these archival models by rendering the actual architectures and their Building Information Modeling (a skeletal visualisation of a building). The AR integration will probably be a hit for some and a miss for others as it does not expand on the architectural practice. Appropriately named “In the making”, this room invites the visitors to peer into the architecture firm’s design practice, taking for granted that the ideal visitors would have some expertise on architecture.

In the second room, the exhibition attempts to showcase how art, science, and people blend together in the practice of architecture by showing two sets of films on a double-sided screen situated in the middle of the dark room. On the one side, is shown a documentary film about life at the rehabilitation centre REHAB in Basel. The other side screens surveillance-like footage of people habiting H&dM’s buildings. The film interviewing people at the rehabilitation centre was touching at times, but if the curators had delved deeper into the interactions between people and their surroundings and what kind of role architecture plays, the presentation would have been more engaging.

The last room was a conceptual room in the sense that the visitors could walk through H&dM’s process of designing and creating their current project, Universitäts—Kinderspital (children’s hospital) in Zürich. The room features floor plans, layouts, a video game that simulates the experience of walking around the hospital through a controller, and a 1:1 interior mock-up of a hospital room. This white room is designed to be enhanced by AR images. As such, one can get a glimpse of H&dM’s work process: this might be fascinating for architect aficionados who are admirers of the firm.

Although the exhibition is simply titled ‘Herzog & de Meuron’, it has such a rigid focus on the firm alone that it will appeal only to its established fans. That is not to say that the exhibition was too dense for the general audience to enjoy, but it lacked the interpretation and critical notes that might have justified its entry fee…

Herzog & de Meuron is on at the Royal Academy until 15th October. Tickets from £13; concessions available.

Half-price tickets available for those aged 25 & Under.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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